Vaporwave, at its core, is the amalgamation of three feelings:
One: Tranquility, as rain envelopes a small Japanese town wherein slumbering anxiety leaves you shielded away from the over-stimulation of city life. Kyoto glistens from out a small balcony; you dissect its radiance and solemnly breathe cigarette smoke between the echoes of passing cars and an occasional “meow” from the neighboring alleyway.
Two: Nostalgia, and the fast-paced hyper-consumerism culture of the '90s that violently, perhaps too passionately, celebrated itself. Elevator music, Kmart shopping sounds, crudely drawn Saturday morning cartoons, that blue and purple pattern on paper cups that never happened to die. The birth of the personal computer, modern technology’s baby steps, the shallow, clip-art graphic design: artwork and sounds that would go on to be slaved and sundered by niche teenagers in 2015.
Three: Greek busts and statues.
Vaporwave is a glitch in the matrix. It’s an accident that occurs when a decade of artists in hypnagogic pop cultivate enough fans in the 2000s to mutate the music into something more: something strangely significant and cultural. And as a cultural phenomenon, vaporwave extends farther out than just music — art, movies and video games are infected by its vibrant, glitchy tendrils, which glorifies the style way more than it deserves credit for.
By sampling electro-pop-rock songs from the '80s and churning down the pitch into a concoction of manic frequencies, you’ve done half the work to make a standard vaporwave track. This method, in particular, is featured heavily in the album “Floral Shoppe” by Macintosh Plus. Ramona Xavier, the artist, yielded only this one record with her nostalgic '90s alias, however “Floral Shoppe” has become a staple in vaporwave music. Her song "リサフランク420" is essentially the national anthem of the whole following, a following that follows something I never thought I’d follow, in suit.
Like many other fans, my first foray into the genre was that aforementioned Japanese song, which translates into “Lisa Frank 420.” There’s something about it, the way it is, in how it’s created, that is infuriatingly addictive. The structure is simple and old-school, featuring only Diana Ross’s now-masculine, heavy vocals streaming consciously over a sludgy, cartwheel synth melody that puts itself in your pocket. It’s somnolent, it’s an overdose of Nyquil, and the dreamlike ambiance never seems to fully vanish from the room it’s played in.
And, literally, the whole thing, literally, is just Diana Ross' song slowed down and chopped up. Is that not whimsically bizarre?
Xavier only built a piece of the then-newly-formed genre in 2012. Vaporwave has since exploded from all sides, thieving aspects from ambient and trap music to fuse a powerful style of its own. Consider 2814’s “Birth of a New Day,” or “新しい日の誕生,” it is a simulacrum of the aforementioned rainy evening in Japan. Or Blank Banshee’s self-titled releases, they’re one of the most well-known albums on Bandcamp and have gone on to inspire a plethora of sickening vapor sub-genres (seriously, what the hell is this?)
There will always be an aspect of the genre that will be a meme; the “AESTHETIC,” its pretentious zeitgeist, the celebration of corporate culture — it’s a joke taken seriously. Yet that doesn’t seem to devalue its worth as a genre. Vaporwave is evocative in the same way an ocean evokes seasickness, but if you love sailing the deep blue waters of contemporary music, the genre may actually come as a welcome addition to your library.
Here are a few albums in vaporwave that, I believe, are worth checking out.
Notable songs: “Pretty Beam (Computer Love),” “Error on the Dance Floor,” “Krystal GB,” “Surf,” “808 Dreams”
Trap music may be the best place to start in that it's the most approachable. Perhaps less so when the sonic landscape is flooded with chopped up commercials from 1995, but Vaperror is straightforward with his music. “Mana Pool” is essentially stripped down trap with cloudy synths and bouncy 808 hits. In some way, the album showed the community that vaporwave doesn’t have to all be about manipulated '80s songs. You can groove to it if you want, up in your weird, outdated ivory tower of genre purity.
Acid Arcadia doubles down on this concept and sounds like pretty much.. how it sounds like. The ambient groove has turned into a pinball machine of hallucinations, the beats throw you around the room in a very colorful way. It’s honestly quite a hard album to complete just because of how relentless every song presents itself, but as a collection of individual tracks I think “Arcadia” stands as vaporwave’s finest moments.
Blank Banshee – Discography
Notable songs: “Wavestep,” “Hyper Object,” “Dreamcast,” “Eco Zones,” “LSD Polyphony,” “Megaflora,” “Sandclock,” “Meteor Blade”
Yes, the whole discography. Blank Banshee is possibly the most successful artist in the genre and you will understand why, very quickly, when starting any of his three records: BB1, BB2 and MEGA. The third and latest one, MEGA, broke the Internet for a few days after its release, which was preceded by cryptic coordinate posts on Facebook, as a pseudo-ARG detailing the fictional universe the concept of the album deals with. His music is intricate and sample-based, often using both chopped up vocals in tandem with quick drum hits and reverb-drenched synth waterfalls that define the atmosphere extremely well.
Songs like “Frozen Flame” will exemplify this style, and then some. At any one time, there are about 15 things going on, but despite the lack of breathing room, Banshee can make songs somber and aggressive at the drop of a hat. Like a puppet master with an appendage for every tiny little meticulous detail that’s happening at every second, he controls and arranges extremely well. That alone is worth writing home about.
Vektroid – Neo Cali
Highlights: “Neo Miami,” “Splash,” “Calm,” “Yr Heart,” “Yr Mind,” “Neo Cali”
Ramona Xavier is one of the most important musicians of the decade, and yet no one really knows about her. Which is oddly somewhat appropriate considering how vaporwave carries itself. In its esoteric nature, we are sometimes gifted with fantastic pieces that transcend even the most powerful, and expensive, mainstream music records, just by some girl on her laptop in Seattle. As Vektroid, she created a record that is so passionate in delivery, so vivid in imagery, it’s hard to disregard it as a fan of any kind of music. It is downtempo, ambient, electroclash and synth-pop, cooked at a solid 350 degrees and seared to perfection. This is what the future sounded like in the '80s, and it was righteous.
The bright electronics wash over your temporal lobe in waves. Songs evolve in revolutions of grainy, powerful lo-fi keyboard pulses. The kicks and snares, they feel more like trampolines, define the sonic environment with direction and meaning, more so than your average trap song. This here may just be Xavier’s trump card as a musician. Much like Banshee, she arranges her songs flawlessly, but in a longer fashion. “Neo Cali” sounds like a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist, however it's made so easy to recall every scene and shot through the music.
Tracks like “Calm” and “Yr Mind” are gorgeous, minimalistic pieces of ambiance that suit any time of day via sweeping, extended melody changes that intentionally restrain from complication. On the flipside, “Neo Miami” and “Splash” are louder, more clap-your-hands kind of tracks that explode into chiptune-like hedonism. I don’t know anyone who thinks this album is just “okay” – it’s a love or hate kind of thing. I implore you to gamble your time on it, it might pay off.
2814 – 新しい日の誕生 (Birth of a New Day)
If the kanji script doesn’t scare you off, this is a righteous vaporwave album that is, more or less, known to have dethroned “Floral Shoppe” from its high horse. As far as ambient albums go, it’s no Brian Eno or Flashbulb, but it’s unparalleled in setting the mood: a rainy night in Japan. 2814 is the collaborate project between Telepath and HKE, two established vaporwave musicians, and, despite their 2016 follow-up Rain Temple, this may just be the group’s magnum opus.
The cover of this album is all you need to know about it. The neon serenity is such an accurate depiction of the music, it’s almost absurd. And I’ve never been to Japan, maybe I’ve gotten it all wrong, but the group's Bandcamp community shares this love tenfold. 2814 made something really special with Birth of a New Day, and you can hear it in the blood of each track. There are so many intricate, ambient, pseudo-random noises that fuel the environment to be real. The drums, when unearthed, are drenched in reverb and echo throughout the neon streets. However, it’s the synthesized atmosphere that's the MVP. They're the reason why this album exists, in its out of phase, almost dizzying nature. They adequately capture a beautiful world you never knew you yearned for.
Despite its seemingly directionless mood, and despite having very little replay value after a good few listens, “Birth of a New Day” is record that will go down in history whether people want it to or not.
Audrin Baghaie is the music editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DailyLoboMusic